J-School Challenge: Getting students ready for what’s next

October 10, 2017 01:30

By Simon Perez, RTDNA Contributor
 
Nearly every broadcast journalism school tries to prepare students for the challenges and expectations they’ll face when they leave the classroom for the professional newsroom. At Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, we’ve tried to keep tabs on how well we’re doing as teachers by interviewing students just before and just after they’ve graduated, to see if their expectations of the job jibed with the reality of the job.
 
First, I send a seven-question survey to seniors during the last month of the school year asking what they think their jobs as MMJs (multi-media journalists who report, write, shoot and edit their own stories) will be like. Then, after they’ve been on the job for a several weeks, I send a follow-up survey asking similar questions about what their jobs are really like. The comparison reveals whether the students’ predictions had come to fruition.
 
This is the fourth year of this project. What follows are the highlights of the before and after results of surveys of five 2017 Newhouse graduates:
 
Accurate predictions
 
  • Before graduating, all the students felt confident in their ability to fulfill all the duties of an MMJ. And once they got on the job, they indeed did feel comfortable reporting, writing, shooting and editing TV news stories.
  • A majority of the students feared they weren’t as prepared as they’d liked to have been to do live shots. And in the post-job survey, that turned out to be true. Three of five said they wished they’d spent more time in school perfecting their live presentations.
  • This year’s group predicted the most difficult part of the job would be coming up with story ideas in an unfamiliar market. And it turns out that was also true.
  • However, while students found generating story ideas to be one of the more challenging aspects of their new jobs, they also accurately predicted that lining up interviews would be easier as a professional than as a student. One said: “People know that a lot of eyeballs are going to see the stories I do because we dominate the … market by a long shot. It allows me to get my foot in the door everywhere I go. The students had a sense things they were going to be asked to do more once they got to the real world. Their intuitions proved true. The students felt a different kind of pressure in the professional newsroom:
     
    • To the make the story happen, no matter what. “I think when you have an idea in mind at the morning meeting, then the story falls through at noon, you start to panic,” according to one survey response.
    • To make deadline, no matter what. “Even if your story isn’t as good as you would like it to be, if you don’t submit it by deadline, no one will see it at all,” one student wrote.
    • To live the life of a journalist, always prepared to cover a story, no matter what. One student describes the mindset this way: “My schedule is M-F from 9:30-6:30 but it’s more like Sunday through Saturday, 24/7. In school, we went to classes, did our work for each class and that was that. In the real world, our work comes home with us, we are constantly seeking stories and making connections.”
The unexpected
 
  • One student was pleasantly surprised to find out the station provided her with her own laptop to edit and feed from the scenes of her stories. She wrote: “The field is my office ... It makes it easier to turn a story under deadline when you’re not wasting time driving back to the station.”
  • Another student struggled to handle the intensity of the stories she covered as a professional. Those types of stories weren’t necessarily ignored in undergraduate classes, but nor were they explored in depth. “We might run a VO or RDR but we probably would not seek out a murder suspect or sexual assault survivor while at Newhouse,” she said.
What does it mean?

Overwhelmingly, the students felt they could have spent more time in school working on live shots. Given the demands we already place on students to report stories as MMJs and to perform all the positions required to put on a newscast, we have to think carefully about where in the curriculum we might dedicate more time to this skill.
 
  • Can students handle a heavier workload?
  • If not, then what would we remove from the curriculum in exchange for more live shots – ethics, law?
  • Given the credit restrictions placed on schools by accrediting bodies, could we squeeze in another class anyway?
  • And given live performance is a skill that’s developed over the course of a career, not a semester, how much more live shot training would make a difference?
Much more difficult to address in the classroom are the mental health aspects of dealing with the constant pressure to be “on the clock” as well as engaging citizens who are experiencing the worst moments of their lives. Because journalism professors are not mental health experts, are we even qualified to prepare students to handle the emotional parts of the job? Or is our role merely to advise students what awaits them as professionals?
 
Otherwise, it seems the hands-on, “teaching hospital” approach to broadcast journalism utilized at Newhouse and at other schools is giving the students a pretty good grasp on what they can expect when they transition from student MMJs to professionals. How-to seems to work.
 
Simon Perez is Associate Professor of Broadcast and Digital Journalism at Syracuse University. He continues to work as an MMJ in the summers at KPIX TV in San Francisco. He has chronicled his newsroom experiences and the lessons brings back to the classroom at http://www.simonperez.com/blog.